Managing Director of the Enter Art Foundation, Till Wald, in the studio with artist Helena Kauppila
Helena makes colorful paintings that may appear haphazard und unplanned. Yet viewing them live, we feel that there is a systems thinking behind the work. No wonder, because the artist holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Columbia University! Currently Helena lives and works in Berlin.
Till Wald: Pursuing a career in mathematics, what made you switch and decide to become an artist?
Helena Kauppila: Switch is a rather strong word. Mathematics is what got me thinking about art, and there was, it seemed, a natural transition. The roots of this decision, if you want to call it that, trace back to my time as an undergraduate at Caltech. At the time I was struggling to explain, to friends and family, why it was that I wanted to be a mathematician. One day I came up with an idea: I would learn how to paint, I would place paintings next to the mathematics, and then people would understand to ask me about the process instead of the conclusions. I didn’t know much about art at the time, but I had this intuitive feeling that art objects, in our current culture, signify a creative maker. Math seems more fixed. It is not really like that, it is quite unknown how anybody ever comes to prove a new theorem, but that is the impression that we have.
TW: Does your art relate to mathematics?
HK: Definitely, and also to neuroscience. Mathematics is all about relationships between structures. In fact, my thesis centered on proving that a certain problem has two equivalent ways to approach it. I like to use gestures from math and science, they are a way to organize space and open new dimensions. I am not really an abstract painter; I am rather interested in actual feelings and gestures from life. Not only human gestures. Mathematics has a different relationship with representation than typical art theory. Instinctively, I am closer to mathematical ways of thinking and of seeing and exploring the world.
TW: Could you give us an example?
HK: Well, for one, the genetics series spread around in my studio now. There are many ways to look at an organism. In certain applications, it is most clear to use the genetic code as the description of a being. When studying bacteria, for example. New species are discovered through genetic sequencing of buckets of mud. A bit funny, but scientists sometimes use this crude description. It highlights how ubiquitous bacteria are, yet also how much more there is to learn. By some estimates, as many as one trillion microbial species live on Earth. The results of this research have a huge impact on our understanding of life and of evolution.
TW: The big painting behind you, with the colorful letters, is that the genetic code?
HK: Yes, the letters actually depict a particular gene, ARHGAP11B. This gene plays a role in the development of the large size of the human neocortex. The idea that a genome can stand in for an organism intrigued me, so I picked a gene that is unique to humans. The painting also relates to a recurring fascination I have with the beach theme. It goes back to a memory from California, a beach full of people having all kinds of fun. In the painting, the eclectic bright colors relate to this real experience. I tend to find that my paintings need to focus on only a small aspect of the experience. If I find a way to heighten this one aspect, then there is a chance of a good work.
TW: What would you like to communicate with your work? Genetic engineering is quite a hot topic these days. Do you have political, or educational, motives in pursuing this theme?
HK: I do think that art has a special role in facilitating connections and conversations. Genetics is a theme we could be having more varied conversations about, I think. There are so many implications, about our history, the relationships between organisms, potentials for medicine and agriculture, even climate change mitigation. There are also risks. When I started the series, one motivation was just the shock of realizing how behind the times my own knowledge was.
TW: Has the genetics of the corona virus made it into your work?
HK: Not yet. I tend to focus on broader picture patterns. And solutions. Paintings last a long time, so my themes are about the kind of world that I would like to live in, and of opportunities to see our existing world from a new, more expansive, perspective
TW: If not the virus, has the lock-down effected your art in any way?
HK: Let me focus on the positive. First, I was lucky, because I managed to finish an artist residency before the lockdown. The residency was in Istanbul, from December until the end of February. So I had this amazing experience and then the restrictions started to happen. For me, this period is turning into an opportunity to reflect, to calm down, and to establish new routines. An important new routine has been dancing, or somatic experiences, a new tapping into bodily intelligence. I am looking at the different senses, especially sound, and how these make it into my paintings of places. Did you know that squirrels listen to birds?
TW: Why is that?
HK: To assess safety. If the birds are happily chirping, the squirrels feel free too. Our subconscious processes so many details about our environments. I have a hypothesis that in my work I take these sensory inputs and process a selection into visual form. I just finalized plans for a show at the Finnland-Institut next year, on the themes of nature, senses, and the body.
TW: Sounds great. I look forward to seeing it.
TW: Finally, do you work in media other than painting? Can you describe some other projects for our audience?
HK: I think in color, and I think through the body, so most of my work is medium to large paintings. I never sketch ahead of time. The physicality of the mark is so important for me, and the physicality is hard to repeat. So my drawings are not sketches for paintings. I have a few drawings and some watercolors, ink drawings on paper. Then I have a series of crochet sculptures that I call hyperbolic paintings. These are actually discs, the size of a glorified couch pillow, that curl in on themselves. I see them as making the image while constructing the canvas, both taking place at the same time. I have one video work relating to complex systems. In Istanbul, I had a chance to try ceramics, and there I got an idea that I would like to explore in larger dimensions. I have a few concepts for installations, and I am trying to find the right funding to execute those.